I haven’t posted many times on this blog, but if you’ve noted the acts that I’ve highlighted, you probably came to the easy conclusion that my focus is on the indie scene. And it’s true, I will readily admit that my heart lies with the indies.
But I, and, I think, others, have an interesting relationship with that word. Indie. It’s a concept, and, now, a genre, that I am proud to embrace but feel somehow apologetic for. I feel the need to excuse myself, to say, “I know this is an indie song, but listen!”
Why? Because, I think, our mainstream music culture is at once entranced by, and suspicious of, the indie scene. One need look only as far as the success of Urban Outfitters, or Vampire Weekend, to see the extent to which indie culture has pervaded the popular sphere. But despite such a meteoric rise in popularity, indie kids (hipsters, specifically) are the subject of derision from all sides, as is a great deal of indie music.
Not that I think my observations are groundbreaking or original. Pitchfork (itself an indie staple) recently wrote an exhaustive piece on “The Decade In Indie,” which is a thoughtful and perceptive (if a little professorial and condescending) assessment of how the scene has mutated and grown over the past ten years.
But I’m not here to share my thoughts on hipsters or iPod commercials. My job is to bring you music.
One of the biggest complaints lodged against indie music (aside from “it’s annoying”) is that it’s so based on buzz and fads. Bands soar on a wave of hype, then disappear when listeners realize that they have no staying power, nothing truly special about them. So here I’ve chosen a few albums released in 2009 that still sound relevant.
Note: Indie in this context just means something that you would likely find on an indie kid’s ipod, something that would appear on Pitchfork or Gorilla vs. Bear.
Here it goes (with links!)
Bon Iver-Blood Bank EP
You probably know about Bon Iver. Miley Cyrus mispronounced his name. Kanye West flew him out to Hawaii to record vocals (exciting!) for his upcoming album. Justin Vernon, the man behind the project, is about to become very, very famous.
So Blood Bank makes for a very interesting listen. It’s basically the moment Vernon decided to plug in his guitar, drastically expanding his sound. Yes, his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago was a collection of folk tunes that screamed “bearded guy recording in a cabin in the winter,” and Blood Bank doesn’t really stray from this wintry palette. But just as For Emma (full disclosure: this is one of my favorite albums EVER) transcended what could have been a limited range, Blood Bank manages to be hard-hitting and engaging, even at a measly four tracks. The title track sounds like a frosty, impressionistic painting, and the EP’s closer is a tribute to Imogen Heap (which was recently sampled by Kanye). Beautiful.
Major Lazer-Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do
Two white guys making Jamaican dancehall music is a provocative proposition, to say the least. Throw in a vague concept based on a one-armed Jamaican soldier and you have what appears to be an album full of cheap gimmicks. But it’s not.
Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do, the debut album from producers Diplo and Switch (the guys who did “Paper Planes”), is an intensely fun record, perfect for dancing or for a summer barbecue. Highlights like the Santigold-assisted “Hold The Line” and radio-perfect “Keep It Going (Louder)” are pure, hypnotically catchy pop, and the album is a veritable “who’s who” of dancehall artists who lend their vocals to the project. Aside from the extremely skippable stoner-joke track “Mary Jane,” the album is an amorphous and enjoyable ride.
This is one of the sexiest albums recorded since Prince changed his name to a symbol. The British trio make music for the nighttime. Negative space, silence, is wielded like another band member. It’s as if the band deleted every sound, every note, that wasn’t completely essential.
“Crystalised,” one of the album’s highlights, features boy-girl vocals, a spare, spy-guitar riff, and a drum kit. The only other sound on the track is a high-pitched, reverbed whine that might have been a vocal at one point. But the song is just about perfect. So is the record. These songs will be soundtracking Cadillac commercials and art-kid parties for a very long time.
Female indie singer-songwriters are everywhere, but Actor sounds like nothing Feist will ever release (not to slight Feist, she is a great songwriter and a darling performer).
Annie Clark, who performs as St. Vincent, balances baroque instrumentation and more traditional pop sounds to craft beautifully realized, often tortured vignettes about relationships. And she does so with attitude, calling her man “a supplement,” and “a salve” on the stormy, stomping “Actor Out Of Work”. But the album really peaks on “The Party,” an achingly pretty song that is tragic and upsetting and sad. But it works.
Well, there’s something to listen to. I hope at least one artist caught your attention.
I know they’re indie, but listen!